SEND & safeguarding: Effective practice

Written by: Sara Alston | Published:
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The increased vulnerabilities of children with SEND mean that safeguarding must remain a constant focus for all school staff. Sara Alston advises

There are four bullet points (paragraph 185) in Keeping Children Safe in Education (DfE, 2021) which focus on the additional safeguarding vulnerabilities of and risks for children with SEND.

We need to remember that these are a starting point and reminders, not the whole story; to ensure the safeguarding of some of our most vulnerable children we need to look beyond these headlines.

Effective safeguarding is dependent on knowing and listening to our children as individuals. Seeing children with SEND as a single group may cause us to miss the wide variety of difficulties and risks they face. As with any group of children we need to be aware of their individual strengths, needs and vulnerabilities.

To make assumptions about the additional risks they face and presume that they are the same for all children with SEND would be as dangerous as ignoring them entirely. Let’s look now at the four bullet points.

1, Communication barriers and difficulties in managing or reporting these challenges

It is important that a child’s voice is heard and listened to, regardless of how it is expressed. Many children with SEND have communication difficulties. Any child who is dependent on others to support them to express their needs is at risk of being misinterpreted or silenced.

This is a particular issue as schools and parents often need to advocate for children, explaining and supporting their communications with other practitioners, especially when children use alternative communications strategies or devices.

Likewise there are risks for children with SEND who present as verbal and articulate but who may not fully understand the language they use or how it may be interpreted by others.

Many children with SEND need additional time to both articulate their thoughts and process what is being said to them. Too often the need for speed in our safeguarding procedures can silence these children.

We need to remember that not all communication is verbal. Behaviour is communication, particularly when we lack or cannot use words to express our needs or worries. Changes in behaviour are a key indicator of a safeguarding need. All changes in a child’s behaviour should be considered and questioned. Too often behaviours are considered part of a child’s SEND presentation and not considered as a possible safeguarding indicator.

2, Children being more prone to peer group isolation or bullying (including prejudice-based bullying) than other children

SEND children’s difficulties with communication and interaction, as well as social, emotional, mental health and/or physical needs and difficulties, can mean that they can struggle to understand, form and maintain social relationships.

They may misunderstand socially appropriate behaviour and conventions – both in themselves and others. Their learning, behavioural and physical needs may make them appear different. Further, this can be exacerbated by the support they receive in school causing them to stand out from their peers.

Their desire for friendship combined with poor social understanding can mean that these children are easier to engage in inappropriate behaviour. This can make children with SEND more vulnerable to bullying, abuse and risks of exploitation, both in the physical and online worlds.

Many with SEND struggle with face-to-face interactions, so online interactions can seem easier to manage – there is time to think before responding, you don’t have to deal with information from facial expressions or body language, there are clear topics for interaction. Yet they can lack the understanding to differentiate between friendship and bullying.

These difficulties can be increased where children struggle to differentiate between fact and fiction. Where a relationship is formed within a computer game, it can be hard for a child to identify or understand when there is a move beyond the game. That activities that might be acceptable, if not age-appropriate, within the game are not acceptable within the real world.

Children may act without understanding the implications of their actions and can be incited to inappropriate or even dangerous behaviour leading to involvement in violence, child criminal exploitation, sexualised behaviour (including the sending and sharing of nudes and semi-nudes) and vulnerability to radicalisation. Many perpetrators deliberately target these children.

3, Assumptions that indicators of possible abuse such as behaviour, mood and injury relate to the child’s condition without further exploration

Injury and changes in behaviour and mood are key indicators of abuse. Yet too often for children with SEND these are assumed to be related to their SEN or disability and so disregarded without further exploration.

Any injury in a non-mobile baby or child is an immediate red flag. If a child cannot move, any injury to them is likely to be caused by someone else. Equally because a child has regular meltdowns and throws themselves about or has seizures where they can injure themselves, does not mean that their injuries are not caused by someone else. Further, being dependent on physical assistance and possibly intimate care reduces a child’s ability and confidence to resist or avoid abuse.

Mental health difficulties can co-occur with many forms of SEND. Keeping Children Safe in Education highlights that mental health difficulties, including self-harm, can be an indicator of abuse. This must be considered for those with SEND, particularly where there is a change in behaviour. However often a lack of continuity of care means that these changes go unnoticed, are disregarded or simply not questioned. They are seen as part of the SEND condition and nothing more.

So that we do not allow their SEND, or our perception of their SEND to mask their communication of abuse, we must keep asking ourselves the question “How would we regard a child’s behaviour or injury if they did not have special needs?”

4, The potential for children with SEND or certain medical conditions being disproportionally impacted by behaviours such as bullying, without outwardly showing any signs

Not only are SEND children disproportionally impacted, a focus on their age, rather than their needs can mask this. An underlying key concept when considering safeguarding harms, impacts and risks is to compare a child to another similar child. Too often this is taken to mean a child of the same age, rather than at the same developmental stage.

For children with SEND, not only do we need to consider this for ourselves, but we need to be able to explain what a similar child is like to other practitioners. Many of us working with children with SEND, forget how much specialist knowledge we hold and use in our work without thinking and assume others share this.

This is particularly true for children with non-visible needs and disabilities (e.g. autism, ADHD, speech and language difficulties). This includes explaining that special needs are a continuum and not all children with a particular difficulty will behave in the same way or have the same needs.

We need to be clear about the impact of and changes in behaviour for this child and be clear in our communications about this to other practitioners.

Beyond KCSIE: Working with parents

Effective working with families is key to support the safeguarding of children with SEND. There is a real dichotomy here. Often when we are working closely with families, we become emotionally involved and engaged in their difficulties, so there is a danger that our compassion and understanding for parents can blind us to their children’s safeguarding risks and needs.

This can lead to a professional reluctance to make judgements about concerning aspects of parenting. We need to remember that abuse perpetrators, including parents, groom the adults around them, including the professionals working with their children. Further the risks of disguised compliance are not reduced by being the parent of a child with SEND.

At the same time, professionals need to be open to listening to parents, including and often particularly when their perception of their child varies from that of professionals. Children will behave differently at home, but often this is disregarded. Parents’ descriptions of their children’s behaviour can lead to safeguarding concerns and judgements about parenting, rather than being seen as key information about how to support a child.

Beyond KCSIE: Neglect

Among the additional risks to children with SEND is an increased vulnerability to neglect. Neglect is always hard to identify and evidence, particularly for those with SEND. We need to be aware of issues with access to and engagement with services, including appropriate equipment and responses to medical needs, and concerns about physical interventions and behaviour modification. Equally, the lack of availability and difficulties in accessing services can mean that children and/or their parents do not complain or question professionals as they fear they will lose the limited services they have. Further, parents may have their own needs which require support.


The concept that “the welfare of the child is paramount” must underlie all our work with children, including those with SEND. To reduce their vulnerabilities we need to remember that children with SEND are individuals with different needs and facing different risks, not a single group. This requires us to see beyond a child’s SEND to understand, question and evaluate the challenges and risks they are experiencing.

  • Sara Alston is an experienced SENCO and safeguarding lead who also works as a SEND, inclusion and safeguarding consultant and trainer. Visit Read her previous articles for Headteacher Update via

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